Monday, November 19, 2012

The Children's Hour

Which has nothing at all, really, to do with the 1934 stage play by Lillian Hellman, or the 1961 film drama - based on the play - directed by William Wyler (who had made Ben Hur two years earlier), starring Audrey Hepburn and Shirley MacLaine. Possibly one of the first Hollywood films to try and deal with lesbianism.

It's just that the title appealed to me as I sat down to write today. The idea to write about some aspect of children and crime came to me last week after I had watched a very good British film from 2007 - And When Did You Last See Your Father? - a film with an espcecially stellar cast: Jim Broadbent (an Oscar winner for his role in Iris); Colin Firth, an Oscar winner a few years back for The King's Speech; plus Juliet Stevenson and Gina McKee. (If you should watch the film, look for Carey Mulligan in a small but effective supporting role.)

In fact, the film has nothing at all to do with crime - unless you consider adultery to be a crime, which I do not - but instead is an intelligent and frequently moving portrayal of the difficult relationship between a father and son, over a multi-year period.


How I got from there to writing about children and crime is, I think, typical of how a writer's mind works, whether composing a blog post, or weaving one's way through the plot of a mystery novel. One thing, one thought leads to something else, and something else, and pretty soon a tapestry starts to form. The film in question was based - fairly closely, I believe - on a memoir by the British writer, Blake Morrison, the memoir having almost the same title as the film. I was impressed enough by the writing in the film to look up Morrison and to read about him.

His memoir, by the way, won the J.R. Ackerley Prize for Autobiography. That award put Morrison in some pretty decent company: Anthony Burgess, Germaine Greer and John Osborne were previous winners.

But it was another book by Morrison that inspired me - if that's the word - to pen a few lines on children and crime.

In 1997, Morrison wrote As If: A Crime, A Trial, A Question Of Childhood. That book was based on the brutal murder, in 1993, of James Bulger, not quite three years old at the time of his death, by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables.

              James Bulger

James was abducted from a shopping centre in Bootle, near Liverpool - that's Merseyside, if you are a Beatles fan - made to walk with his killers for 4 km, along a railway track, where he was beaten to death with bricks and stones, and an iron bar. At autopsy, he was found to have ten skull fractures, and it was impossible to determine which of those many blows might have killed him. Then his body was placed on the track, where it was later cut in half by a train. His remains were found two days later.

What set this particular crime apart from so many others of equal or even greater brutality and monstrousness, is the fact that the two killers were each, at the time, just ten years old. Two little boys playing hookey from school - "sagging" in the local argot - and roaming around a shopping centre, indulging in various small crimes, including shoplifting. They had also earlier tried to abduct another small boy, but in that case the boy's mother intervened and her son was saved.


James Bulger's murder created a sensation in England, but was not so very widely reported in North America. I do remember reading about it, though. The trial itself was controversial because the two boys were tried as adults, and in public. There was much discussion about the rightness, and the wrongness, of that. Could they have had a fair trial when there was so much publicity leading up to the court proceedings? How seriously were they harmed - and it seems a certainty that they were both damaged persons when they committed the crime for which they were tried - by the proceedings, and by the outpouring of anger and even hatred from the general public and especially from the family of James Bulger? That is an issue that is still not settled. It does make one think, though.

I don't have an answer, of course. But I can start to close this part of my post by noting that both boys were sentenced to incarceration (with therapy) for a "recommended minimum" of eight years each. They were the youngest convicted murderers of the 20th century.

Both boys - now actually young men, 19 years old - were released after eight years in confinement, given new identities, and moved to secret locations; a sort of "witness-protection" type of action. They had been judged to be no longer a threat to public safety. The terms of their release included the provision that they would have no contact with each other, or with the Bulger family, nor were they to visit the area, Merseyside, where the murder had taken place.

It must be noted, also, that the parents of James Bulger were sufficiently affected by the murder and subsequent events that their marriage came to an end two years later.

Now, almost twenty years after the murder of James Bulger, Robert Thompson seems to have been successfully rehabilitated. He has, I suppose it can be said, been absorbed into his new identity, and is living a more or less normal life somewhere in England.

The same cannot be said for Jon Venables. In June 2010, Venables was charged with possession and distribution of indecent images of children - child pornography - and given a two-year prison sentence. In November 2011, it was reported that officials had decided that Venables would remain in prison for the "foreseeable future". That is the latest report on the case that I have read.

Reading, or re-reading, about the Bulger case, brought back the memory that during my recent two-week visit to England, the papers and television newscasts were replete with stories about the abduction of a young girl from a town in Wales. Five-year old April Jones was last seen in Machynlleth, mid-Wales, on October 1, 2012, and in spite of a massive police investigation, assisted by many members of the public, she has not been seen since.


A day after her disappearance, a local man, Mark Bridger, aged 46, was arrested and his Land Rover seized for forensic examination. Bridger was later charged with the abduction and murder of the child, and for perverting the course of justice by disposing of her body. Her body has still not been found.

And so, as the late Kurt Vonnegut might have said, it goes.

And it goes on and on. Also during my time in England, another major crime story competed  for newspaper space and airtime with the April Jones abduction. This is the now infamous case of Jimmy Savile, former BBC Television star, and now reckoned to be one of the most prolific abusers of children in British history. Scotland Yard has stated that the incidents of sex abuse and rape occurred over six decades, and that Savile was a "predatory sex offender".


That Savile was formally known as Sir James Wilson Vincent "Jimmy" Savile, OBE, KCSG, does not help his case - posthumously, as he died in October 2011 - one little bit. In fact, the BBC is still in considerable turmoil over who knew what, and when, and to what levels of the network's senior bureaucracy the perfidy reached.

All of this - the Bulger Murder, the fates of the two murdering boys, now men, one living free and apparently rehabilitated, the other back in prison; the April Jones tragedy and the ultimate fate of the man charged with her assumed death; the despicable Jimmy Savile - raises the question of forgiveness. That's a really sticky one, a nettle perhaps too painful to grasp, certainly for some. Where it might be easier to forgive small children who commit horrible deeds, given the presumption of childish ignorance of the gravity of their actions, it's a lot harder to generate forgiveness for adults, who are supposed to "know better". Whatever awful incidents might have blighted their own lives and personalities when they themselves were very young.

I think it's an issue that we mystery writers grapple with when we compose our stories, invent crimes, victims and criminals, and toss around the questions of punishment leavened with justice. Or vice versa. Well, I know that I do. It's inescapable, really. One of the prerequisites for our chosen craft.


Susan Russo Anderson said...

Wonderful post, thank you. Whether or not an innocent, such as a child, is the direct victim of the principal crime of the story (for there are many crimes, I think, surrounding the main crime), they add another dimension to the story, one which, I think, haunts the reader in an unforgettable way. And I'm not sure why. Is it because the innocence of a child makes her such a profound witness, or such a perfect victim? Or is it because in their innocence children see and feel what others cannot, or is it because their innocence makes them perfect foils for the crime and the antagonist? In any case, thank you for your post.

j welling said...

I've had a hard time dealing with the actual brutality of murder. Your post reminds me of that decision of avoidance.

I can deal with the murder's consequence in my text just fine. I prefer the "two men in, one man out" sort of scene if I have to detail the event where the off page demise is what we all know without the horrific details. I do dislike the sanitized compliant version where the gun barks and the victim slumps dead. It doesn't work that way and it seems a cheat to write it as so.

Children - such as in Tom Rob Smith's excellent _Child 44_ have been a problem for me to murder. I can discover their body but I can't do 'em in on the page.

I'm not particularly squeamish in real life. 0331 as a schoolboy, actually. I think my objection revolves around an "artful" demise and the death throes are not the images I want to impart on a reader's mind.

Old corpses - sure. I have no problem with a house full of bodies under the floorboards. Children too. Connecting the act to the suffering and brutality rather than the consequences of the same ... not so much.

Maybe I'm not cut out for murder as much as I'd like to think. Maybe I'm better suited to mere lies and deceit as root crime. Finding bodies seems to work well enough for Chandler. Maybe I can get by ...

Thanks for the post. Something for thought.

synge lucia said...

I will cope with the actual murder's result during my textual content simply good. I favor the actual "two males within, 1 guy out" kind of picture in the event that I must fine detail the big event in which the away web page death is actually exactly what everyone knows with no terrible particulars. I actually do don't like the actual sanitized compliant edition in which the weapon barks and also the target slumps lifeless. It does not function this way also it appears the be unfaithful to create this because therefore.

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